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  • On Being and Cognition: Ordinatio by John Duns Scotus
  • Stephen D. Dumont
John Duns Scotus. On Being and Cognition: Ordinatio 1.3. Edited and translated by John van den Bercken. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016. Pp. xii + 298. Cloth, $65.00.

On Being and Cognition: Ordinatio 1.3 is a translation by John van den Bercken of John Duns Scotus's large and influential treatise on mind and knowledge contained in book 1, distinction 3, of his Ordinatio. This is the first English rendering of Scotus's important distinction that is both complete and made from the definitive Latin text. Scotus's Ordinatio is the revised and greatly expanded version of his Oxford lectures on Sentences of Peter Lombard. (The term ordinatio designates an authorial compilation or revision.) The Sentences of Lombard was itself a twelfth-century summa, later adopted as the required systematic text for theology in the medieval university. Commentaries on the work rapidly evolved into major vehicles of theological and philosophical speculation in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Scotus's enormous and imposing Ordinatio sits at the apex of this genre and is considered his magnum opus; one that he re-worked until his death in 1308 but ultimately never completed.

The topic of book 1, distinction 3, in Lombard's original text is the possibility of attaining natural knowledge of God, particularly from the "image" of the divine Trinity thought to be present in the human mind, namely, the triad of memory, intellect, and will. Scotus developed Lombard's locus into one of the most expansive and detailed treatments of human mind and cognition in the medieval period; one that in the Latin original occupies a folio volume of some 400 pages. Not only is this one of the longest distinctions in all of [End Page 539] Scotus's various commentaries, but arguably one of his most important, since it contains several of his highly original and iconoclastic positions. For example, it is here that Scotus gives his most developed arguments for his notorious claim that there is a concept of being univocally common to God and creature (as well as to substance and accident), rejecting the universal consensus that such a concept could only be analogously common. Here is also found his extensive critique and rejection of Augustinian "illumination theory," supplying in its place a naturalistic defense of human certitude against skeptical objections. Given its importance, sections of distinction 3 have been often anthologized in English, most notably in Allan Wolter's Duns Scotus: Philosophical Writings for the Library of the Liberal Arts (Bobbs-Merrill, 1962), but never in its entirety or from the authoritative Latin text.

Van den Bercken's translation is therefore a welcome and significant contribution. Rendering Scotus, however, is not for the uninitiated. Scotus's Latin is difficult and unaccommodating, while his thought is very complex and assumes familiarity with less known contemporaries. In the face of these challenges, van den Bercken has done a commendable job of wrestling Scotus into readable English while remaining faithful to the original. His careful renderings are informed by prior translations into French (Olivier Boulnois, Gérard Sondag) and German (Hans Louis Fäh) and their attached commentaries. He has conveniently retained both the paragraph numbering of the Latin edition, which facilitates comparison with the original, as well as its numerous identifications of Scotus's sources and cross-references. There is an introductory chapter on the main themes (9–37) and an appendix of notes on the translation of obscure terms and troublesome passages (269–75).

One feature of van den Bercken's translation warrants comment. As indicated, Scotus revised the Ordinatio to the end of his career, and our present distinction has numerous insertions. In fact, Scotus's Ordinatio has three layers of revision: (1) personal additions, revisions, or annotations by Scotus himself; (2) additions made by others of relevant passages taken from other works by Scotus, particularly from his later Parisian Sentences; (3) additions of non-Scotus texts. Van den Bercken has translated these various insertions to the original Ordinatio. This is no small contribution, since Scotus's shorthand Latin in (1) is especially cryptic and elliptical. However, the translation...


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